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June 17, 2003

Reader Request #3: TV

Okay, here's one from Wendell, who wants to know about my television habits. He writes:

You've written little about the beloved Idiot Box (TV) in your years on the Whatever (I Googled to make sure there wasn't something I'd missed that you'd already done), awarding "The Simpsons" the title of Best TV Show of the Millennium, and declaring your "recent TV choices" 15 months ago as "Nickelodeon (for SpongeBob Squarepants), Cartoon Network, CNN Headline News, the Science Channel, and The West Wing."

Anything to add?
What did you think of the season finale of West Wing and its future without Aaron Sorkin?
Ever seen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", or what have you said/done to people who say "You ought to watch Buffy"?
Have you ever seen Alton Brown's "Good Eats", or will you find out which channel is 'Food Network' in order to watch Lileks' guest appearance on Al Roker's show?
What's your favorite show on Cartoon Network?
Please please please explain the appeal of 'Spongebob Squarepants' (I have enjoyed many cartoons in my adult life, but NOT THAT ONE).
Can you name all the spin-offs of "Law & Order" and "CSI" (trick question)?
How would you use TiVo if you had it (I'm assuming you don't but you know what it is)?
Is it possible to spend too much time online AND watch too much TV?

Last question first: Yes, of course, especially if one considers how little TV (or how little Internet) one truly and actually needs.

I don't write about television much for the simple reason that I don't watch a whole lot of it. I'm busy enough during the day (thank God) that I don't get sucked into its vortex of glowing pixels, and during the evening it seems wrong to stare at a glassy box when one has family to stare at. Also, unlike most people, I don't default to TV as a boredom cure; this is a combination of being a reading nut very early on and having the TV habit broken for me by my high school, which was a boarding school that did not allow the students to watch TV on a regular basis. There was this idea that we might have homework they need to do instread. I surely resented it at the time, but not so much now.

As I result there are lots of shows people like that I've never seen on TV, which include but are not limited to: CSI, Buffy, Seinfeld, American Idol, Survivor, Enterprise, Everybody Loves Raymond and The Osbournes (some of these I've seen in their DVD packages). I stopped watching West Wing last year because I sensed it was getting a little too loose with the writing -- I blame the cocaine (nevertheless I think it's not long for the world without Sorkin), and I stopped watching most NBC and FOX shows I used to watch -- Friends, Fraiser, Malcolm in the Middle, even (sadly) The Simpsons -- when I moved to Ohio, on account that I live too far out to get the broadcast signal for their channels, and yet the local affiliates won't allow me to get their network alternates on satellite. I'm aware of all these shows, as I am on most pop culture -- it freaks my wife out that I know who's who on American Idol even though I'd rather rub my lips with splintery wood than to watch it -- but with the exception of The Simpsons, I don't feel like I'm missing out much.

This lack of concern about television does weird people out a bit. If you ever want to see a conversation come to a complete stop among certain age groups, simply note that you've never seen an episode of Seinfeld; people literally stop and stare like you've suddenly sprouted an arm straight out of your nose. Buffy-ites I have noticed will actively try to prostyitize and get you to watch; I visited by ex-girlfriend a couple of years ago and she sat me down with the intent of viewing an episode but I think we ended up taunting her cats instead (they were cute cats). I tend to short-circuit Buffy-ites early on by being agreeable as to the quality of the show and agreeing that just because the original movie stank (and it did) that didn't mean the show couldn't be brilliant. That usually calms them down.

My active TV watching these days is confined to Nickelodeon and CNN Headline News and in the morning, Disney Channel with Athena (she loves her the Rolie Polie Olie). Cartoon Network has fallen out of favor with me because it's replaced most of its lineup with anime of varying quality, and while I appreciate good anime as much as any geek (I just got sent my copy of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie), there's only so much of the stuff I can watch, and that amount is also fairly low. And with the exception of some of the Adult Swim bits, most of the new original shows from Cartoon Network are crap: Codename: Kids Next Door, for example, needs to be wiped from the planet (my favorite Cartoon Network series ever: Cartoon Planet, the sillier, gentler spinoff of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which I also love).

Nickelodeon's series in general are also not fabulous: Rocket Power, Chalk Zone and especially Rugrats bother me. But the network has the early 21st century kid's programming trifecta in Spongebob Squarepants, The Fairly Oddparents and Jimmy Neutron, all of which have the right mix of kid goofiness and sly adult toss-offs to make them enjoyable to watch for everyone. As for the unnerving popularity of Spongebob, well, it's just the show's time, like it was for the Powerpuff Girls a couple of years ago, and South Park before that (and Ren and Stimpy before that). The best way to understand the popularity of Spongebob, without being four or without being stoned, is simply to watch three complete episodes, which is the minimum required amount for an unaltered adult to get hooked by its charm. Fewer than that and your forebrain rebels at the pleasing colors and beguiling shapes. But then it gets you. Fairly Oddparents works on the same principle. As for Jimmy Neutron, the key to enjoying it is simple: Watch Sheen.

As it happens, I do have a TiVo, or more accurately, the Dish PVR, which despite the branding succeess of TiVo in becoming its own verb is actually the best-selling personal video recorder (it's because it doubles as the satellite cable box). I don't talk about my TiVo-ing adventures here, primarily because it's already abundantly clear that I'm a yuppie tech dork with too many toys as it is, and I don't want to be just another dweeb spooging about his TiVo. Yes, it's like crack cocaine for your television viewing habits. But you already knew that.

A glimpse into the programs I've recorded on the PVR would show 13 hours of Spongebob, a couple hours of Fairly Oddparents, and an assortment of films that run in the wee hours of the night that I've recorded to view later: Currently these include The Anniversary Party, A Beautiful Mind, We Were Soldiers, and 48 Hours. Whether I'll actually get around to watching any of these is another matter entirely; one of the dark secrets of being able to watch any show you choose at any time is that you end up not watching a lot of the stuff you idly record. The being the case, I make myself erase any film I've recorded that sits unwatched on the PVR for more than a month. Since erasing an unwatch movie feels vaguely akin to throwing out a book just because you haven't got around to reading it, this is tougher to do than it seems. But our satellite TV setup has 50 movie channels. Sooner or later they all come back, so I can record and ignore them again. It's the circle of life.

(Remember I'm still taking topic suggestions for Reader Appreciation Week! Make your suggestions in the message thread here.)

Posted by john at June 17, 2003 08:03 AM

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mark | June 17, 2003 09:37 AM

What Buffy "original move"? Do you mean the opening two(?)-parter?

I never hated Buffy, but I never considered it that interesting. Then one day I allowed myself to be sat down and forced to *watch*. $deity, it was great. It, Babylon 5, The Simpsons, L&O and The Outer Limits is all I watch on TV nowadays. Which actually sounds like a lot, although I spend less than an hour a day (avg) gawking at the box.

How d'yer feel about Babylon 5? Did you watch it while it was on?

Brennan | June 17, 2003 10:27 AM

There was an actual "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" theatrical movie that came out years before the TV series. Details at http://us.imdb.com/Title?0103893 of course.

Awful in several different ways. Kristy Swanson OK as Buffy, Luke Perry almost OK as love interest. Donald Sutherland (looking like he really couldn't be bothered) as Buffy's original Watcher. A pasty, bloated-looking Rutger Hauer as the scenery-chewing "Big Bad". Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens as the chief Minion (overacted death scene = highlight of movie). There may have been a plot, but I wouldn't testify to that in court.

It's amazing that Joss Whedon ever got the series greenlighted after the movie flopped, even if it (mostly) wasn't his fault.

Sharon | June 17, 2003 10:43 AM

Definately watch A Beautiful Mind. Excellent movie.

Captain Button | June 17, 2003 12:23 PM

Regarding the original Buffy movie, I liked it ok, but I'm known for low tastes. But there was one really cool bit:

Donals Sutherland's character is trying to convince Buffy she is a Slayer without success. Finally, he whips out a knife and throws it at her face. She claps her hands, trapping the knife inches short of her nose.

"You threw an knife at my head!"

"Yes. And you caught it."

Bob Sassone | June 17, 2003 03:08 PM

Oh for God's sake Scalzi, you've never seen Seinfeld? (Sorry, somebody had to say it).

As someone who watches about 8 hrs of TV a day (because I like it and also write about it), I have to take exception to this long-held fallacy: if you watch TV a lot, you don't read and/or your social life is kaput. Not true. It's a myth, at least where I'm concerned. Or how about the old chestnut, "why don't you get outside instead of watching TV or playing video games! Get some exercise! You're getting fat!" As if we'd all be slim if we sat on the sofa reading Shakespeare and Faulkner all day (but you don't hear people say "get out and get some exercise!" if we were reading a lot). TV really can be part of a balanced lifestyle. (Sorry...rant over - there's an essay about this at my site if anyone is interested).

I think I'd literally go crazy if I lived some place where I couldn't get The Simpsons or other favorite shows. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast is a brilliant concept. (They are talking about doing the same thing with Alf, having his own talk show, and I think that would be pretty funny.) Buffy is one of the best shows of all-time. As for The West Wing, I think that it was at it's best when Sorkin was DOING coke. I still love the show though. And SpongeBob is great!

DPWally | June 17, 2003 03:19 PM

Never watching Seinfeld is not easy. It's everywhere. If you'd simply not chosen to watch it, you'd have run across an episode by accident years ago. To have *never* seen it, you must be actively avoiding it.

True? Inquiring Seinfeld fanatics want to know. (Not that I'm a fanatic, I'm just translating the question into non-fanatic language.)

John Scalzi | June 17, 2003 03:37 PM

It is true that I made the decision not to watch Seinfeld, but this was sometime around the fifth or sixth season (previously my duties as a film critic would ofetn keep me busy in the evenings), so it's not like it was a difficult decision: I mean, I was already not watching it. At this point I don't watch it because I've not watched it for so long I don't see why I should start, all the in-jokes have already crept into the culture, yadda yadda yadda. There's no point.

gerrymander | June 17, 2003 05:15 PM

A recommendation: Soderbergh's Full Frontal covers the same ground as The Anniversary Party, with better direction/editing and less unnecessary histrionics. Then again, Full Frontal doesn't have Phoebe Cates.

Alice | June 17, 2003 05:47 PM

I really must agree with the Cartoon Network stuff, as I have had to watch many excellent shows be replaced by badly dubbed DragonBall Z and *shudder* Ruromi Kenshin (which is painfully bad even in Japanese). But Cartoon Network seems to have changed its evening lineup in response to the cessation of the school year, so there's Dexter's Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls on every night. Hurrah.

I really hate to be one of those scary creepy die-hard anime prosthelytizers, but the English dubs of Inuyasha and Cowboy Bebop do not do the series justice at all. Inuyasha, especially, is rendered unwatchable by the terrible voice acting. If you can get your hands on the DVDs in any sort of convenient manner, I highly recommend doing so.

brian | June 18, 2003 12:55 AM

my tv broke in 1996. i threw it away.

To Be Continued

wendell | June 18, 2003 02:17 AM

Thanks for indulging in my long-winded question! I have always considered you one of the finest writers loose on the Web, and the fact that you found a way to say "I don't watch much TV" without sounding snobbish proves it.
For myself, I never saw the cultural need for Seinfeld, Raymond or any sitcom starring a former stand-up comic since Roseanne, the early years (and I knew some stand-ups presonally, none of whom got sitcoms, THANK GOD!). CSI and L&O are lost on me; after ER started making soap-opera-ish elements respectible in TV drama, it was harder to watch the shows that tried to go back to the Dragnet-style "just the facts" plotting, and besides, you can set your watch to the plot twists - a dramatic version of The Simpsons' habit of changing the episode's focus in midstream. But I drifted away from ER after Dr. Green died; the last series with an "arc" that I folowed through all of was Babylon 5, and the last season was difficult. I'd still reccommend Buffy on DVD myself, but more for specific episodes - one of the few series where the "very special eps" really were.
Among the truly juvenile cartoon shows, I have to agree with Athena on Rolie Polie Olie. I also appreciate Jimmy Neutron and Fairly Odd Parents much more than Spongebob. Still, I plan to take your "three complete episode" advice when I have the chance.
Even with TiVo myself (I 'won' one during the great essay contest of 2000, along with every other MetaFilter member at the time), I don't pay for movie channels, but instead either rent DVDs or wait for them to air on commercial channels, 'cause I know I can fast-forward through the commercials easily. The TiVo remote may be the tech gadget I handle most easily, much to my shame, but I still think that little TV-shaped mascot is the spawn of the devil. I respect your taste, so I'll utilize your list of current movies-in-waiting, but "48 Hours"?!?
The only part of my seventeen-part question I'm still hankering for an answer on is about Alton Brown's "Good Eats" and Food Network. Of course, the cable special-interest channels (Food Network, DIY, Animal Planet, Discovery's Wings Channel?!?) are a particularly potent form of TV Crack (I have my wife in a program to break her of "Trading Spaces"-type decorating shows), but Alton is up in my pantheon of admired media figures with you, so maybe you should say "hi". (Uh oh, call the language police: should I have said "in the pantheon" or "on the pantheon"? And should I have capitalized Pantheon? Or is Pantheon anywhere near the right word? If this were other than a blog comment, I'd look it up; instead I'll ramble on for another 50 words about it...)

Geo | June 18, 2003 11:28 PM

But...Inuyasha ain't much anyway; let's be honest here. It has its moments, but, as per usual for Takahashi opi, the show goes on far, FAR longer than the fairly banal premise warrants. And she still has absolutely no grasp of human nature, even after all these years. And at least there are no interminable fight scenes in Maison Ikkoku. Hokay.

Roger Baker | June 19, 2003 03:35 PM

My wife is a big fan of Buffy (love that female heroine kicking ass), though I could take it or leave it.

If you only watch one episode, thought, hunt up the musical Buffy episode. Totally unlike the others, but Brilliant (with a capital B) TV.

I've got a Emmy DVD if you want to borrow it.


darren | June 20, 2003 10:49 AM

My wife and I moved to Portland, OR. from Hawaii (where we didn't own a TV) and decided to buy one because the UniCorp Movie Theatre Monopoly Inc. in the area really blows chunks. Usually those chunks are all over the theatre and bathroom floors, toilets, and occasionally the popcorn. It is also no small annoyance to pay half a day's wages to sit through a half hour of commercials before the movie starts. We only were buying one to rent movies and still do not have cable or a dish.
Going into the giant sideways monolyth with the 10,000 acre parking lot blocking what would have been an otherwise beautiful view of Mt. Hood was a bit overwhelming to begin with. I was prepared to purchase a nice surround sound system with a dvd and large screen t.v. The salesmen sold himself right out of a big sale. We couldn't believe the wasted technological advancements in the industry. Certain types of equipment not compatable with other types. S-connections, V-chips, wires, lights, and remote controls everywhere. We finally just told the guy: "You know what? Just give us that $150 T.V. and that $50 VCR. We just want to watch movies." His reply was "But you won't have surround sound TMX and no ability to pre record your favorite programs and no 16 hours of extras on the DVD, ad nauseum." When my wife said "It's just T.V.", I had never seen anyones jaw drop lower. He had the look of "Just T.V? JUST TV????"